Gains for Grad Students

Hours before a planned strike over prolonged union contract negotiations, teaching and research assistants"teaching assistants" to avoid repeating words? -sj at N.Y.U. strike a deal that they say includes historic gains. What does it mean for other graduate student workers at private institutions who wish to bargain collectively?

March 11, 2015

Graduate student workers at New York University called off a planned strike early Tuesday after they reached a last-minute union contract agreement with administrators. Members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee said the deal includes significant wins for the United Auto Workers-affiliated union, including a 4 percent raise this year for fully funded teaching assistants and a “landmark” family health care benefit. Teaching and research assistants at other private institutions -- where graduate student union bids have faced legal challenges in recent years -- also praised the agreement, calling it inspirational to their cause.

“There are some historic gains that we’ve earned, and I mean earned -- they weren’t given to us,” said Chris Nickell, a Ph.D. student in music at N.Y.U. and a committee spokesman. “We have been in negotiations for 14 months.”

Some 1,200 members of the union -- including teaching and research assistants -- still have to approve the contract, which both the union and university decided not to make fully public until after the vote. But the union released some details late Tuesday. Among them are:

  • A 4 percent raise this year for fully funded teaching assistants, to $36,600
  • Guaranteed annual minimum increases on total compensation of at least 2.25 percent
  • Individual medical insurance coverage of 90 percent of premiums for those not otherwise receiving fully funded health care
  • A family health care fund starting next year that will rise to $200,000 by the third year of the contract (applicants are eligible for up to 75 percent subsidy toward the cost of university health care premiums)
  • Tax-free child care fund effective January 2016 of up to $100,000 in the final year of the contract
  • A 50 percent hourly pay raise for N.Y.U. Polytechnic School of Engineering graduate student workers, to $15, and a $1,500 bonus each academic year, up from $750
  • Various student fee waivers amounting to about $900 per worker per year

If ratified as expected, the contract would go through August 2020.

This isn’t New York University’s first graduate student union. Teaching and research assistants there were a recognized collective bargaining unit and had a contract from 2001-2005, but lost their recognition following a 2004 National Labor Relations Board decision that graduate students at private institutions are primarily students and not employees, and therefore not entitled to collective bargaining rights.

Graduate student workers at New York University sought to legally re-establish their collective bargaining rights in a long-term N.L.R.B. case -- which many other graduate student workers on other private campuses were following, in the hope that they could use any ruling in favor of the students to help their own bids. But in a surprise move in late 2013, N.Y.U. agreed to recognize the union on its own. Graduate student workers elsewhere said they were watching to see what happened, and if the move would indeed lead to a strong contract for the workers.

And they had to wait a long time -- more than a year, until N.Y.U.'s graduate student workers threatened to strike after going a month without a counteroffer from the university.

“Just because a union gets recognized doesn’t mean negotiations will be easy,” Nickell said, adding that the union was “100 percent prepared to strike.”

But the four-day labor action, which was planned for just this week, was averted Tuesday after bargaining committee members and administrators agreed on terms in the early morning hours.

Christy Thornton, a Ph.D. candidate in history, said in a statement that the contract includes “incredibly important gains for those workers in our unit who need it the most: international student employees, graduate workers with families and those paying out of pocket for university health care. We have doubled hourly wages, provided new family health and child care benefits, and gotten health care covered for hundreds more workers.”

Nickell said he thought the most notable gains were that the union's lowest-paid workers, who currently make $10 per hour, will make $20 by the end of the contract, and that "we reached 90 percent health care for individuals [not otherwise covered] after starting from zero at the beginning of negotiations." The union also won family and health care and child care funds, "which were previously off the table," he said.

John Beckman, a university spokesman, said both bargaining teams had decided not to discuss details pending ratification but that the institution is “very pleased to have reached a tentative contract.”

Uptown from New York University, members of the Graduate Workers of Columbia (University) union, which also is affiliated with the United Auto Workers, awaited additional information about the terms of the agreement Tuesday. The union recently announced that it had submitted enough cards to hold a union election to the N.L.R.B., but it also has asked Columbia to recognize it without being forced by the board -- similar to what happened at N.Y.U.

Paul Katz, a Columbia Ph.D. candidate in history, said via e-mail, “We are all very excited and congratulate our colleagues at New York University. Their campaign has been an inspiration to us at Columbia and to the growing movement of graduate employees organizing across the Northeast.”

Aaron Greenberg, a Ph.D. student in political science and chair of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization at Yale University, which is also seeking recognition as a collective bargaining unit affiliated with UNITE HERE, said his organization is also “excited and inspired” by the N.Y.U. agreement. “We look forward to following their example and negotiating a contract with the Yale administration.”

Andrew Yale, who has been active in organizing the American Federation of Teachers and American Association of University Professors-affiliated Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago during his Ph.D. candidacy in English there, said the New York University contract “really reinforces that this is a movement. [The committee] wasn’t doing this alone -- they had solidarity from other private and public universities, unionized and those that currently have campaigns.”

He added, “I think it really demonstrates that collective bargaining with the willingness to use the strike as a weapon to back that up works really well. This really bolsters the [Chicago union’s] aim.”


Back to Top